After 18 years of being mostly at home with my parents I was eager to leave Shillong and start a new chapter of my life - one with way more freedom. The 3 months, leading up to joining REC, were spent arguing with my parents on what I should do with my life.
I really wanted to study Physics but my mother would have none of it. “Na baba na, nobody gets a job with an MSc. these days, she said”. Reluctantly I decided to sign up for engineering.
Stuffing everything I needed in a 24 inch VIP suitcase, a rolled up bed and a thousand Rupees I left home. Coming along with me was another student, who was going to join the Metallurgy program at REC Rourkela.
Meghalaya, the state I came from, contributed only 3 students to the REC system due to its smaller population - one each of Computer Science, Metallurgy, and Electrical Engineering. About the only research I had done on Rourkela was which trains to take to get there. After a lot of push from my mother I found out at least one other person who would be my batchmate. I had no idea who my seniors were either.
We hopped on to the train (Kamrup Express) and in the same compartment found our third buddy from Meghalaya - he was joining the Electrical department, had long hair and liked dancing. We reached Rourkela on Saturday and after some back and forth between the halls and the registrar’s office was finally assigned room 16 in Hall 1.
There are few things you should know about Room 16.
There was going to be no seniors in that room. It was on the way to the mess - which means hall residents frequented that area 3 times a day. It was right next to the mess manager’s room where students came asking for food at random hours and where mess secretary’s came to pick up their bribe money (to buy that new cycle or tape recorder).
Up until then I believed that looking straight at people while talking was basic human nature. Within 15 minutes that belief was shattered. The “third button” rule was explained to me by a second year student raring to go with his new found seniority.
Then came the second specimen. “Kyo be, shave kab karega?”, he asked. To which I promptly took out my shaver and shaved off my sparse beard. “Aur yeh mucche, tera baap kaatke deyga kya?”. I shaved off my moustache very reluctantly, and had a strange feeling of emptiness that only lasted till the next second year guy showed up. It’s been 25 years since then and I have not had a moustache.
It was close to lunch time and another senior showed up with a wide grin.
“Do you know your state and branch senior?”.
“I don’t know him sir”, I replied quietly.
“It’s not him dammit, it’s her. And when you meet her you will tell her nice things about me. See, I did not rag you. Did I?”
Now there was a person who I could go to lunch with - the quid pro quo would at least protect me from getting beaten up by other second years.
My other roommates showed up that afternoon, Hota and Sunil. Both wonderful people. Having 2 other folks on the same boat felt good. That evening and the next day was spent on a bunch of orientation activities that I do not remember at all.
Classes started on Monday which meant we were out early in the morning, back in the hostel for a quick shower and lunch, followed by the afternoon session. Since we did not have any seniors in our room, other batchmates slowly started visiting us to take a breath, and discuss their best and worst ragging experiences. Those were the very early days of bonding as batchmates. We learnt about the seniors to be avoided at all costs, those who were good natured and those who had the clout to protect us from other seniors.
This also prompted second year students to visit our room and rag a whole bunch of freshers at the same time. We attracted random seniors with all kinds of fetishes, every other day. One of them made us kiss all the girls pictures in a magazine that was lying in our room. Thank God it was India Today and not Femina. All magazines went under the mattress after that. These ragging sessions would last beyond midnight at times.
On one such night we had a fresher in our room after dinner. In came a senior. Having seen a new bakra in the room, he looked at this fresher right in the eye.
“Where are you from?”
“Andhra Pradesh, sir”
“Where in Andhra?”
“I am from Rajahmundry district, sir!”
“Tell me one thing Rajamundry is famous for!”
“Jaya Prada is from my district, sir.”
The moment that came out of his tongue I knew this night was going to be long, really long. Indeed it was. We spent the next few hours discussing every aspect of Jaya Prada, her films, her look, her body, every inch of it.
The following weekend we were taken outside the campus to visit the town of Rourkela - Sector 2 and Sector 5, as far as I remember. I met some new batchmates from Hall 3. Started chatting with one of them, he was from Civil Engineering.
“I am from North”, he said.
“I am from North East”, I said.
“You know, North naa? Its north of UP. “
“Acha acha”, I remarked.
I had learnt something new, the definition of North - and a precursor of things to come in later years - the various ways in which students identified themselves.
We went back to the hostel looking down at our third buttons. This continued till the freshers social when we were formally welcomed by live music and all. Although the third button restriction was over things were still tense between freshers and second year students. The real bonding was going to happen during the trip back home for the Puja holidays.
Thus ended the first 2 months of my life at REC Rourkela. There were many days when I hated myself for signing up to study engineering, on other days I really enjoyed meeting someone new from a far off state. Eventually the bitterness of ragging gave way to a sense of belonging and freedom. More importantly, learning how to cope with so much freedom.